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The Time Machine: How Nostalgia Prepares Us For The Future

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Over the past few weeks, our TVs have become a time machine. They've transported us to our past, to scenes of crowded subway cars and chaotic playgrounds. Where faces are unmasked and people sit shoulder-to-shoulder. I've found myself marveling at movies where carefree characters hang out at sporting venues and music clubs. It makes me remember a time when I didn't have to think twice about hugging a friend, or stopping by a café with a colleague. It's hard to imagine being quite so carefree again, even as many communities in the U.S. and across the globe make tentative steps to reopen.

The ache we feel for a world before COVID-19 may seem unproductive. What's the value in looking back at lost freedoms and comforts? Why focus on things we cannot change? Of course, this is how the mind works. As World War II was coming to a close, researchers in Minnesota put volunteers on a starvation diet as part of a research experiment on how to help starving people in war-torn areas. As the volunteers got hungrier and hungrier, their minds became consumed by food.

Some time ago, I was chatting with Clay Routledge, a psychologist at North Dakota State University, for an episode that we did called "The Good Old Days." Clay studies nostalgia, and how it affects the way we think about our lives. Many of us experience nostalgia as a bittersweet emotion. It combines the memory of good times with the ache of loss. You might think that people who are more nostalgic are more prone to sadness and depression. But Clay found that nostalgic reflection makes us more optimistic. It reaffirms our social connections. And by remembering important things about the past, it lays out a vision for a hopeful future.

I've found in recent weeks that my own mind is going back further and further, sometimes to my distant childhood. Last week, I cooked a recipe I learned decades ago from a long-dead aunt. I remembered how – after placing food before me – she always thought to place some food on her windowsill for birds to eat. When we remember people who have been kind to us, when we remember happy times, we are not merely engaging in fantasy. We're reminding ourselves of our place in the world. Nostalgia gives us renewed appreciation for the people and places that constitute our lives.

A number of years ago, Clay surveyed a group of British adults who had been children during World War II. The war was a time of great upheaval for them, as their country was bombed and family members were sent off to the battlefront. But these people didn't remember the period with horror. They remembered it with nostalgia. They told Clay that it as a time of deep distress — but also a time of profound meaning. It revealed what was truly important: their connections to other people. "There was so much movement, so much upheaval," one person told Clay. "Yet through it all there is a strong sense of belonging, of security, of family."

Perhaps you understand this yourself. One thing many of us have realized these past few months is how much we value the people in our lives. Maybe you've had a Zoom happy hour with friends you haven't seen in years. Maybe you've taken long walks with family, and noticed new things about your community. Maybe you've found yourself just sitting and doing nothing, and connecting with yourself. For those of us who lead frenetic lives, that can be a novel experience.

One useful exercise to practice in these times is to close your eyes and ask yourself what you will feel nostalgic about when you look back on the early months of 2020. What will you smile about? What will you miss? Thinking about the present through the eyes of your future self can tell you what is important and beautiful in your life right now. This exercise won't change how hard the pandemic has been for many people. It won't make all the losses disappear. But it will do what the war did for those people in Britain: It will tell you what you should be grateful for today.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.